Monday, January 22, 2024

Xandering is Slandering

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Since I wrote this post, my friend Ava Islam reached out to Justin Alexander and engaged him in a productive conversation. Once the two of them arrived at a place of understanding, Ava also reached out to me to mediate a conversation between me and Justin. The purpose of this conversation was for each of us to understand where the other was coming from, to see if we could find any common ground, and to reach a willingness to agree to disagree on the rest. I'm grateful to Ava for helping to facilitate this conversation.

You can read Justin's post that came out of this conversation here: A Second Note on Xandering. I encourage you to read it first, then come back here.

In brief, here's how we arrived at this point. In 1979, Jennell Jaquays wrote an early dungeon called Caverns of Thracia that people admired for its interesting nonlinear maps. In 2010, Justin Alexander wrote a series of essays praising Jennell's designs and describing the techniques others could use to draw similar ones. In those essays, Justin named the nonlinearity in those maps after Jennell. Last year, for a variety of reasons, including wanting to draw attention to his authorship of those essays, Justin announced that he'd like the process of drawing nonlinear dungeon maps to be named for himself rather than for Jennell, and he published a book collecting his writing where he used that new name. Earlier this year, Jennell died. And last week, I wrote the post below this note, condemning him for the renaming.

I think it's fair to say that Justin's announcement was broadly understood to mean that Jennell didn't want her name used to describe nonlinear dungeon mapping anymore, and that she either suggested Justin name it after himself, or endorsed his plan to do so. What Justin has said to Ava, and through her to me, is that this is a misunderstanding, and it wasn't his intention that people would take that meaning from what he wrote. His new post offers a much clearer recounting of events.

Jennell was okay with people using her name to describe nonlinear dungeons, as long as the process of drawing these maps was spelled correctly, as Jaquaysing, with an S. She did not want the term to be used with her name spelled incorrectly, without one.

Each person writing about these nonlinear dungeons can decide for themselves whether they want to call the process of drawing them Jaquaysing or Xandering. Justin will not be changing what he calls them, in his book, on his blog, or I guess whenever he talks about them. But if you want to call this process Jaquaysing, as I still do, you can use that term knowing that Jennell Jaquays was okay with you doing that. Whichever term you choose, I encourage you to make your case by setting a good example and being the sort of person others want to emulate, and not by picking fights with people who've made the other choice.

I appreciate that Justin has acknowledged that his initial announcement was misunderstood by many readers, and that he was willing to offer a clarification. It was misleading because people were misled; that does not mean it was intentionally misleading, or that he was trying to deceive.
The post below was written in anger and came from a place of pain. After Jennell died, I had conversations with younger trans women in the scene who said they wanted to still use Jennell's name when talking about nonlinear dungeons. But they thought, based on reading Justin's announcement, that they couldn't, because they'd be disrespecting Jennell's wishes, some of her last wishes before she died, by doing so. These conversations were why I chose to write the post. I was afraid that Jennell might be forgotten, because the people who wanted to honor her mistakenly thought that meant they shouldn't talk about her. I didn't want that to happen. I was afraid, and angry, and I lashed out. I wanted to help protect Jennell's memory and legacy, because that's the only part of her that we in the roleplaying scene have left.

I phrased my arguments in this post very harshly. I thought that I was dealing with someone unreasonable, someone who would never listen to me or update what he'd written. I thought the only way people would continue using Jennell's name to describe drawing dungeons would be if I convinced them to. Because of Justin's willingness to engage in a dialogue with Ava, and through her to reach an understanding with me, because of his willingness to clarify what Jennell said, I now think that I misjudged him, and that some of what I said below was unfair to him.

Justin has been in the online roleplaying scene for a long time. For years before I had a blog of my own, I followed other old-school bloggers, including him. The first time I ran a game that wasn't Hero Quest, I used Justin's one-page MC Escher dungeon as the adventure site. The first place I learned about Jennell Jaquays was reading about Caverns of Thracia's maps on Justin's blog, either just because I was reading it regularly, or because I saw a reference and a link somewhere else, and followed it back to Justin's essays.

Justin has not plagiarized Jennell. He has not stolen from her. He does not deserve to lose his job or have his book withdrawn from publication. Someone who sees the word Xandering somewhere online and wonders what it means will likely end up at Justin's blog, and at his essays where he holds up Jennell's nonlinear dungeon maps as exemplars. Although he edited those posts to change the name of the term to Xandering, all other references to Jennell remain intact. In these essays, he credits her as the originator of the style he's describing. And since he is the author of the essays, I agree that he deserves to be acknowledged for his analysis. Readers of Justin’s book will also see Jennell mentioned in the acknowledgments.

Justin also, obviously, finished writing his book before Jennell got sick. The timing of her illness meant that she wasn't able to comment on Justin's announcement or to clarify her position herself. That means that the responsibility to clarify falls on Justin, and in his most recent post, he has fulfilled that responsibility. The timing reflects an unfortunate coincidence, but he picked the date of the announcement based on the publication schedule, not with the intention of taking advantage of her.

In my post, I also described Jennell's illness inaccurately. She was not in a coma at the time of Justin's announcement, as I said. She was very ill then, and my understanding of what it means that she was previously on a ventilator is that she was in a medically-induced coma while she was on it. She was not able to keep up with or comment on anyone's D&D blog at that time. But at the time of Justin's announcement, Jennell was healthier than I said, and I want to correct that now.

Again, I appreciate that Justin has written a clearer account of events, and has helped to ensure that people know that she continued to be alright with people using her name, and calling drawing nonlinear dungeon maps Jaquaysing. That account, that assurance, is what I wanted most, and I thank Justin for providing it. I know this past week has been difficult for him. I also thank Ava for reaching out to me, and helping to at least partially resolve the conflict. END AUTHOR'S NOTE.

Jennell Jaquays - image source
On January 10, 2024, the game designer Jennell Jaquays died. She was a woman of many accomplishments, who published one of the earliest and most highly regarded fantasy roleplaying adventures, The Caverns of Thracia. Jennell's loss is a great sadness to those who knew her personally.
It's also a loss to trans women in gaming, people like me, for whom Jennell's example of how to be out, successful, and admired served as an inspiration, and as a reminder that we have a place, we belong, in a hobby and an industry that can sometimes seem quite hostile to our existence. Even those of us who didn't know her knew of her, and we could look to her as an exemplar, and as someone whose presence cultivated a safer space.
Every trans woman I know in gaming has been affected by her loss. But in addition to being sad, I'm also angry, because there's someone in the old-school roleplaying scene who's been trying to minimize Jennell's accomplishments and to claim credit for some of her ideas and her work. At a time when Jennell Jaquays should be remembered and celebrated, he's trying to erase her.
That person is Justin Alexander, author of the blog The Alexandrian, and the recently published book So You Want to be a Gamemaster.
You might be surprised to hear this, because you might be familiar with Justin's earlier article praising Jennell for her dungeon design, and naming the process of introducing non-linearity into game maps after her. That article is available at this link: Before you continue, I encourage you to click on that link, so that you'll understand what I'm talking about.
"Xandering the Dungeon" - image source

You may be wondering why a post that's supposedly about a trans woman's contributions to gaming is now named for the cisgender man who wrote the post. I find myself wondering that as well. 
Unfortunately, despite sometimes celebrating Jennell's ideas, Justin has a mixed history when it comes to dealing with her as a person. Both the supposed reasoning and the timing behind the of rebranding Jennell's designs as things Justin credits himself for are particularly galling. But he has a history of attempting to put himself ahead of her that I want to review first, before I explain more of why this latest incident is so upsetting.
A Brief Timeline of "Jaquaysing the Dungeon"
In 2010, Justin Alexander published what would become one of the most famous posts on his blog, "Jaquaying the Dungeon" [sic]. It was the first post in a six-part series, and it arguably helped to establish Justin's reputation among bloggers in the old-school roleplaying scene. Because people like the way Jennell draws her dungeons, the term caught on, and drove innumerable clicks, links, and citations in Justin's direction. 
In my view, Justin's fame relies on Jennell far more than Jennell's fame relies on Justin. As a co-founder of the first D&D fanzine, as the creator of the second ever published adventure, as an author of several of Judge's Guild's most popular projects, Jennell was essentially guaranteed to be admired by people looking into the early history of Dungeons & Dragons. Justin was not the only, or even the first, person to talk up the quality of her designs. Justin started out blogging about 3e and Monte Cook's Ptolus dungeon. He probably would have found success in the old-school scene when he turned his attention toward it, but writing about Jennell, and coining the terms "jaquaying" [sic], lent Justin credibility within the scene beyond what his his own work so far had accomplished.
It's also worth noting, Jennell's last name is spelled Jaquays, with an S, and so the correct spelling of any term named after her should have that S as well, whether you say to Jaquays as a verb, Jaquaysing as a gerund, or Jaquaysian as an adjective. Which means that even though he might have been the first to coin the term, Justin also misspelled it. Yes, that's possible. You can be the first and still be wrong.
At the time Justin wrote this first blog post, Jennell had not publicly come out as trans or adopted the name Jennell. By her own account, Jennell first came out to her followers on Facebook in December 2011, and on her professional website in March 2012. 
I don't know exactly when Justin found out about Jennell's gender transition or her new name, although I'll note that he links to her site, where she made the announcement, in the first paragraph of his blog post, and that a comment mentioning Jennell's correct name shows up as early as September 2014. Over the next couple years, Justin must have become aware of Jennell's transition and, rather than editing his post to correct it, he became defensive about his decision not to make the correction. In October 2016, he published "Thought of the Day - Deadnames", where he laid out a six-part defense for his refusal to update the original post to include Jennell's correct name.

I find Justin's arguments here to be made in bad faith. He relies on a variety of hypotheticals and counterfactuals to justify his ongoing refusal to go into a handful of blog posts and hit CTRL H to find and replace the few instances of a single word with another. He says that it would be prohibitively difficult to make such a change to a video, that he'd be unable to make the change if he was already dead, incorrectly compares Jennell's name to a performer's stage name, says that since no one can find every copy of Jennell's published works and put stickers over her old name in them there's no point in making any changes anywhere, and then notes that if she were living stealth he'd be unnecessarily outing her by editing his post. This last claim is particularly dishonest, since Jennell came out as publicly as she was able, and yet he framed his refusal to honor her identity as some kind of favor he was doing for her, as though he was helping her keep a secret, instead of hiding information she wanted shared.

In February 2018, Jennell commented on this blog post to request that Justin update her first name and correct the spelling of the term to match her last name. Sometime later that year, Justin did edit his original post to use Jennell's correct first name. He did not, ever, honor her request to spell Jaquaysing correctly.
Jennell's 2018 comment - image source
The Historical Revisionism of Xandering
In May 2023, Justin announced that he had a book deal to republish some of his old blog posts, along with new content, as the book So You Want to be a Dungeon Master? His announcement includes information about some of the bookstores that will be offering his work, and it's clear that he's hit the big time. Instead of self-publishing or having his work only available on gaming websites, it'll be online and on the shelves of all the major chains. Justin could reasonably expect the success of this book to boost his profile and introduce him to new audiences.

In the process of shepherding this project to completion, it appears that Justin also decided to do some reputational management. At some point, the "Thought of the Day - Deadnames" post disappears from his blog. The Wayback Machine's most recent capture is from January 2020; Roger SG Sorrolla references it in an essay written in December 2021 that was published in Knock 3. I assume Justin took down the post because he realized he appears in an unflattering light in it, and wanted to hide what he'd done.

He went further than that though. In November 2023, Justin put out a new post called "A Historical Note on Xandering" stating his intention to rename Jaquaysing after himself and to start calling it "Xandering". Going further, he republished the original post from 2010 with a new URL and a new title, as "Xandering the Dungeon". He deleted his original post about Jaquaysing, and set his blog to redirect the original link to the new post with his name on it.
In both these posts, Justin mentions Jennell and admits that he was looking at and thinking about her dungeon designs when he wrote them. And anyone who is already familiar with Jennell will remember the truth. But Justin's attempt to claim credit for himself is clear. If someone has only read his book, or seen "Xandering" referenced in conversation online, those new audience members aren't going to know about Jennell Jaquays, and they're no longer going to have an easy window into finding out more about her. Instead, they'll just known Justin Alexander.
"The Internet" by Nedroid - image source
Jaquaysing is the Correct Term 
If we want to talk about designing non-linear dungeon maps, maps that resemble those drawn by Jennell Jaquays, we can call that Jaquaysian dungeon design, in the same way we might talk about Vancian magic, Gygaxian naturalism, Dickensian characterization, Euclidean geometry, or Kafkaesque bureaucratic strangeness. Someone was the first person to make each of those stylistic comparisons, and in a fair world, each of those people would get some kind of credit for noting those characteristics. But what we would never do is name the style for that person.
If you wanted to talk about this kind of dungeon design without naming Jennell directly, you might refer to it as Thracian, after the name Jennell chose for her most famous dungeon that used it. It's the same way that we refer to certain detectives as Holmesian without directly mentioning Arthur Conan Doyle, or describe a monster as Cthulhuesque without saying the name Lovecraft. But no matter how many books ST Joshi writes describing the characteristics of HPL's writing, we'll still never refer to cosmic horror fiction as Joshian instead of Lovecraftian. And that's the crucial difference here.

So if you want to talk about nonlinear dungeons in a way that honors a person instead of just the idea of nonlinearity, you should call them Jaquaysian, or the process of making them Jaquaysing. If you say "Jaquaying" [sic], you're acknowledging the right person, but spelling her name and the term wrong. There is no reason to ever say Xandering, unless you want it to mean something like, trying to take credit for someone else's ideas while simultaneously X-ing them out of history and slandering their memory. But you could probably simply call that plagiarism, appropriation, vainglory, or just dishonesty.

The Caverns of Thracia, level 1 by Jennell Jaquays - image source
Justin Alexander's Bad Faith Arguments
As with his stated reasons for not removing Jennell's old name from his original post, I find Justin's explanations for trying to credit himself by using the term "Xandering" to be in bad faith. The truth, I think, is simply that he wants credit and praise. He expects to reach a new audience of people who won't know this history, and he hopes they'll think only of him. He's no longer satisfied for people to link to his blog while using Jennell's name; now he wants his name to be the only one people use. But those are base motives, and he would look bad if he admitted to them, so instead, he again tries to frame his self-serving as something high-minded.
First, note that he falsely declaims his own responsibility for this decision. "In 2023, for better or for worse, this term was changed to xandering." It was changed by him; he changed it. But he doesn't say that. He uses the passive voice. Not that he did it, but that it was done. By whom? Unstated. And look, he seems to empathize, maybe it wasn't even a good change. Of course he thinks it was good, or he wouldn't have done it. But twice in one sentence he minimizes his responsibility for doing it. 
Later he has other fall guys to put the blame onto. The internet mob, they forced his hand, what else could he do? His lawyer's advice, how could he go against it? It's telling that in any scenario where the reader might think the change was for the worse, Justin fobs responsibility off onto others. He tries to forestall disagreement by presenting this as a fait accompli, a thing that has already happened and can't be reversed or undone. This is nonsense, since at the time that he wrote this, literally no one else had used the term "Xandering" yet at all. And anyway, that's not how culture works. It's always contentious, always changeable.
There's one more reason Justin states for the change, and only here does he paint himself as the agent of his own actions. "Jennell Jaquays wanted a change. She didn’t like that the term dropped the 's' from her name. Her name is very important to her. This wasn’t a problem. In fact, Jennell had previously requested some sweeping changes to the article for similar reasons, and I’d made those changes." The sweeping change he mentions was finally replacing the 3-4 places where he'd used her old name. He's sure to let us know how arduous this was, to press CTRL F and then type in seven new letters. He assures us that adding the S was even more difficult. (So much harder than using a totally different word!) But, he says, she asked, so he did it. Except he didn't. He never edited his blog to spell Jaquaysing correctly. For god's sake, he doesn't even spell it that way in this very post where he's claiming he did! 

But Justin's point here is that he's doing something Jennell wanted, something she asked for. "I spoke with Jennell earlier this year. We both agreed that the name should be changed, and I said it would be a large project to do it, but I’d make sure it happened by the end of the year." Now here he commits a bit of sleight of hand. Remember that what Jennell asked for was for "Jaquaying" [sic] to be spelled Jaquaysing. But in this sentence, Justin doesn't actually say what the change was that they agreed on. Then he mentions talking to his publisher, and to his lawyer. Then he says "After a bunch of back-and-forth, we finally settled on the term 'xandering.' ", and in this sentence, he doesn't clarify which of the three parties he's been talking to the "we" refers to. So this is Justin's magic trick. Jennell asks him to spell her name correctly. His publisher agrees to his request to call the term "Xandering." But without directly stating it - and thus without explicitly lying - he manages to imply that it was Jennell who asked him to replace Jaquaying [sic] with "Xandering". It was her idea, he says, he's doing it for her.
Xandering is Slandering
Part of why Justin was able to get away with this, with putting his name on Jennell's idea and then claiming she wanted him to do it, because at the time that he wrote that, Jennell was no longer able to contradict him. Justin posted "A Historical Note on Xandering" on November 1, 2023. But at that time Jennell was in a coma, because she had Guillain Barre Syndrome, which her wife announced on GoFundMe. This fact was reported in the gaming news, and widely reshared on social media. Justin knew this; he included the link in his post. On November 21, 2023, So You Want to be a Dungeon Master? went on sale in bookstores across the country. And on January 10, 2024, Jennell Jaquays died.
I'm sure that Justin had been planning to introduce the term "Xandering" since before Jennell got sick. I'm sure he would have gone forward with his plan even if Jennell had publicly asked him not to. But because of Jennell's illness, Justin was now free to claim more or less anything he wanted, and the public would have to take his word for it, because he was the only witness to these events able to speak up. I think this is ghoulish. I think it's grotesque.

I don't know what Jennell thought in private. I have no personal communication with her to relay. But I know what she said in public, over and over again. She wanted Jaquaysing to be spelled correctly, with the S, and she continued making this request, even as Justin Alexander continued ignoring it. There was no principled reason for him to do that then, just stubbornness and a refusal to admit he was wrong. There's no principled reason for him to do what he's doing now. Self-aggrandizement isn't a principle.
We've seen what Jennell said in her comment on Justin's blog about him using her old name. She's said the same thing on Facebook and Twitter, really in any public forum where she's had a voice. (Thank you to Humza K for helping me to find so many of the times Jennell spoke about this.)
"Was watching a random Youtube video about adventure design last night
when the youtuber mentioned 'Jaquaying the Dungeon' as part of the process.
I've been aware I'm a verb for about the last 10 years,
and I appreciate that reference from Justin Alexander.
But it still annoys the crap out of me that it's not 'Jaquaysing the Dungeon.'

Dammit people, that 'S' has been there all my life. It's definitely been part of my family's
surname for over 250 years. Please, I expect misproununciations,
but can you just respect the original spelling when referring to me?
It's not too late to correct it... EVERYWHERE."

"Did you know that your last name has become a verb Jennell Jaquays?"
"Yes, I did know this. Bumped into it about 8 years ago.
Though by rights it should be 'Jaquaysing' the dungeon."
 image source

"Though I kinda wish they would revise it to 'Jaquaysing the Dungeon'
because you know, correct spelling? I may use the editorial 'We' at times,
but that doesn't mean I am plural."
image source

There is a world of difference between what Jennell has said, which is that she was fine with the term but wanted it to be spelled properly, and what Justin is trying to claim, which is that she didn't like the term, and that therefore, for her sake, he's gallantly renamed it after himself.
What Now?
I don't expect that Justin will respond to me about this, or even acknowledge that he's seen what I've written. I don't expect writing this to have any effect on his book sales or his reputation with audiences who are new to D&D and have never heard of Jennell Jaquays before.
Justin, if you are reading this, you did a basically good thing in 2010 when you drew people's attention to something that someone else had done well. And then you've progressively shit all over that one kind action over the years. I wish you'd stop. Right now you're behaving like an actual grave robber. I hope you'll have a change of heart. And if your book is fortunate enough to have a second printing, I hope you'll go back to talking about Jaquaysing. And that you'll spell it correctly from now on.
I ask that anyone who's reading this refrain from harassing Justin on social media. It's wrong, and it won't accomplish anything. He already claims to feel persecuted and to feel justified in his actions because of that persecution. More will only further entrench his decision.
If you want to take actions that might benefit Jennell's family, you can contribute to the GoFundMe that will help pay for her medical and funeral costs. If you knew Jennell personally, you can share a memory on her obituary page. If you feel inclined, you can volunteer to participate in the Jennell Jaquays Memorial Game Jam, and after the jam is completed, you can purchase Return to Perinthos, which will initially support Jennell's family, and later donate its proceeds to the charity Trans Lifeline.
You can carry on Jennell's gaming legacy, and help prevent her erasure, by continuing to talk about Jaquaysian and Thracian dungeon designs. Again, harassing people who say "Jaquaying" [sic] or "Xandering" would be wrong, and wouldn't honor Jennell's memory. But you can set a good example, tell the truth, play the game she loved, draw the kind of nonlinear maps like she was famous for, and help make sure that people remember her name.
And if you know a trans woman, whether as part of your gaming hobby, or in any other part of you life, be kind to her. The loss of one of our foremothers is very far from being the only problem that we, collectively, are facing right now.